WASHINGTON — President Trump is trying to make good on his signature campaign promise to build a “beautiful wall” amid negotiations to avoid a government shutdown.
There is currently no deal to fund the government beyond Jan. 19. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has backed a short-term spending bill that would keep the government afloat. However, Ryan’s plan does not have the support of some members of the conservative Freedom Caucus who want stepped up military funding or a promise to have a floor vote on a hard-line immigration bill. This GOP division leaves Ryan’s plan needing support from Democrats, who have maintained a largely united front in saying they would not vote for any plan that does not include.a provision to address the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Trump ended DACA last September, though he gave Congress six months to come up with a fix before deportations would begin.
With this standoff making a shutdown increasingly likely, White House chief of staff John Kelly met with members of the Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday. Multiple sources who were present at the meeting said Kelly indicated Trump is willing to sign off on a DACA fix, but only if it is paired with stepped-up border security measures.
“He made it very clear that the president has become sympathetic to DACA. … Kelly said multiple times that the president wants to sign a bill that keeps the Dreamers in the country,” said a staffer for a member of the caucus who was present for the meeting.
“However, Gen. Kelly also said the White House will not sign a bill for the Dreamers alone, a clean DACA, it needs to be a package with border security,” the staffer added.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat who attended the meeting with Kelly, called it “extremely productive and a good step forward.” Aguilar left with the impression pairing border security with protections for the Dreamers is the main avenue for a potential bipartisan compromise that could avert a shutdown.
“I think the sweet spot for a solution is a DACA fix with border security,” Aguilar said.
During his campaign, Trump’s signature plan was a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Trump vowed Mexico would pay for this barrier and claimed it would be far larger than the existing fencing that currently covers part of the frontier. In the year since he has taken office, Trump has backed down from that promise somewhat and, according to the staffer, Kelly indicated the White House currently has far more modest plans for the wall. They said Kelly expressed a desire to install “an additional 700 miles of barrier” in the same style as the existing border fencing. This would be supplemented by technological security measures.
“The Trump administration has conceded and does realize that there are places on the border where they can’t put a barrier because of environmental or geographical considerations, so they are looking at drones and sensors along with that,” the staffer explained.
“Kelly mentioned that sometimes folks, including the president, might evolve on these issues and so I’ll leave it at that, but there was clearly a discussion, we all acknowledged that the president would like more physical structures down there,” said Aguilar.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat who was present for the meeting, said Kelly also suggested the Trump administration would be satisfied with levee border walls or increased security measures at ports of entry.
“There are differences in terms of what the wall can be,” Espaillat said, later adding, “He didn’t come in and say the wall or nothing. I think it was quite far away from that.”
The White House did not respond to a request to comment on this story or the characterizations of Kelly’s remarks at the meeting.
One former Trump campaign aide who spoke to Yahoo News predicted Democrats would rather see a shutdown than vote for increased security at the border.
“He’s trying to keep his promise to the American people, and one of those promises is the wall, this wall-slash-barrier-slash-smart wall. There’s a general consensus that this is a bipartisan issue, but the problem is the Democrats don’t want to give the president another campaign promise. … Their desire to play politics is what’s putting us at risk,” the former campaign aide said.
However, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who attended the meeting with Kelly indicated they would be open to voting for legislation that included increased border security measures. While he said the type of border wall proposed by Trump on the campaign trail would be a “nonstarter,” Espaillat said that Democrats would be open to other types of security.
Espaillat cited two proposals that he believed could get support from Democrats: the “gang of six” plan crafted by a bipartisan group of senators that was rejected by Trump in a meeting last week, and the USA Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation co-authored by Aguilar, the California Democrat who attended the meeting, and Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from Texas.
The USA Act would protect DACA beneficiaries from deportation while also calling for the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a survey of border security needs. While the bill doesn’t allocate any money for border security measures, Aguilar said it “asks DHS in a very quick manner to develop a framework that we can base future appropriations and budgeting decisions on.”
“It starts to take a deeper dive on what border security means in different regions and a mile-by-mile assessment of where physical barriers are needed versus more technological barriers,” Aguilar explained.
Aguilar also said he believes there is openness to including funding for border security in the bill if it would lead to passage.
“If the president or if members of the Senate have additional needs in order to get this signed into law, I think we’re willing to have that discussion,” he said. “What we’ve tried to advance is a foundation that can move quickly and can have the broadest, most bipartisan support.”
Based on the meeting, Aguilar isn’t sure whether the USA Act has the White House’s support.
“You’d have to talk to folks over there down the street at 1600 Pennsylvania,” said Aguilar.
Espaillat said Kelly had not been familiar with the USA Act prior to the meeting. Aguilar confirmed this but said members of Trump’s legislative team have been involved in discussions about the bill for “weeks.”
According to Espaillat, Kelly expressed interest in the bill after hearing about it at the meeting.
“I saw an interest. In fact, he said that he didn’t know the contents of the USA Act and that he wanted to review it,” Espaillat said of Kelly.
During the first part of last year, prior to becoming Trump’s chief of staff, Kelly spent six months as the secretary of homeland security. Earlier in his career, Kelly was a Marine general and led the command responsible for U.S. operations in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Espaillat said that, given this experience, he was confused by one comment Kelly made at the meeting.
“He said he didn’t know anything about DACA until he became head of homeland security, which really baffled me,” said Espaillat.
Yahoo News asked the White House whether Kelly was aware of DACA before joining the Trump administration and did not receive a response.
For his part, Aguilar said he doesn’t remember “what the exact quote was” when Kelly was asked about DACA, but he confirmed the chief of staff indicated a lack of familiarity with the program.
“I don’t remember the specific answer that he gave to that question,” Aguilar said of Kelly. “I’m not saying that whoever told you that was wrong.”
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